• ISSUE 20
  • Regeneration

A Sustainable Social Movement Emerges in Small Businesses Reutilizing Vacant Houses

Social Movements Intertwined with the Daily Lives of Individuals

TOMINAGA Kyoko, Ph.D.Associate Professor, College of Social Sciences


In contrast to traditional social movements that prioritize scale and impact, a new form of social movement has emerged. This involves repurposing vacant houses and storefronts, conducting business, and engaging with local residents. Kyoko Tominaga carefully listens to the voices of those involved in such movements and researches sustainable social movements that consider urban environments and the life courses of individuals.

Highlighting Social Movements that Permeate the Mundane Lives of Individuals

There are young urban entrepreneurs who are repurposing vacant houses and storefronts in towns to run their businesses and engage with local residents. Through such efforts, they are engaged in forming sustainable communities. There is a researcher who aims to shed light on such activities from the perspective of social movement studies.

Kyoko Tominaga is known for her significant impact on social movement studies by introducing perspectives of the mundane or everyday lives and lifestyles. She researched individuals who participated in the protest activities during the G8 Hokkaido Toyako Summit held in 2008.

At the time, around 5,000 people gathered in the vicinity of Lake Toya, the summit venue, and engaged in various protest activities such as demonstrations and symposiums while camping. Tominaga conducted extensive interviews with many of the participants. What emerged from her research was a focus on social movements that permeated the individual's everyday life rather than the organized collective social movements. "In the camp, rules were created with consideration for the disabled and children, spaces were secured that respected the privacy of women and sexual minorities, and vegan and Halal meals were provided, reflecting a respect for diversity. Many also brought their own bottles and chopsticks, considering the environment. In other words, for them, not just the demonstrations or protests, but their daily lives themselves were a form of a social movement," Tominaga explains.

Tominaga's observation that the motivations and purposes of young people participating in social movements have become increasingly diverse and specialized, turning social movements into subcultures, so to speak, was groundbreaking. This insight resonated widely and garnered significant attention. "Gaining the perspective that an individual's daily life and lifestyle are deeply intertwined with social movements was a significant insight for me," Tominaga reflects.

Small-scale Movements Should Flourish Nationwide
Capturing New Forms of Social Movements

In the research currently being undertaken with graduate students, in addition to the "social movements found in daily lives," she focuses on how the social and political ideologies of the subjects are reflected in the formation of spaces and communities.

They have chosen communities in Kyoto City, Tokyo, and Hyogo Prefecture for their study. There are concentrations of establishments utilizing vacant houses in these areas, including cafes, natural food stores, bookstores, and guesthouses. They plan to conduct qualitative research through participatory observation and interviews at these establishments.

For Tominaga, a novel approach lies in capturing these initiatives in a global context through international comparison. "From the 1970s onward, primarily in Europe, we see activities known as 'squatting.' Vacant houses were legally repurposed, and in collaboration with local administrations and residents, they operated community centers or housing for the impoverished, conducted soup kitchens, language classes, and other social contribution activities," she explains. While squatting is not lawful in Japan, from the 2000s onward, in places like Koenji in Tokyo, individuals with a background in social movements began renovating vacant houses and storefronts. They transformed them into guesthouses, recycle shops, and cafes or used them as residences. "While the younger generations with shared ideals gathered and achieved economic independence through 'small businesses,' they formed communities by running what is known as Children's Cafeterias* and other operations, becoming hubs for interaction," Tominaga elaborates.

*Children's Cafeterias (sometimes called Community Cafeterias) are places where any child can come on their own to secure free or low-cost nutritious meals.

Tominaga finds the small scale of these initiatives particularly "interesting." "A common sentiment I often hear from them is that they don't want to make it big. They say, 'We want to keep it within our circle. We just hope that this endeavor spreads little by little across the country,'" she shares. "In traditional social movements and their studies, there has been a tendency to value its size or political and social impact. I find it intriguing that these young entrepreneurs have a different mindset and values."

Of course, they may face challenging situations when trying to operate sustainably while adhering to one's principles. "Through the interviews, I intend to carefully listen and understand how their social and political ideologies are reflected in their current operations, their relationships with peers, local residents, and the administration, and the significance behind each of their actions," Tominaga shares. "Through this, I aim to explore strategies for maintaining sustainable workplaces in light of the courses of urban and human lives and how to help them continue being a place of social significance."

In advancing this research project, Tominaga has secured competitive funding from several private entities, including the Toyota Foundation and the Obayashi Foundation. She believes it is crucial to engage with the diverse perspectives of various stakeholders through fundraising. "Compared to Europe, Japan is often considered less tolerant of social movements, with notably low participation rates. However, having received substantial private grants for this project, I've come to feel that there's a growing understanding of the significance and multifaceted nature of social movements," Tominaga reflects. This support is also a testament to the high expectations for the insights her research might offer to the industry and, more broadly, to society.


Associate Professor, College of Social Sciences
Research Theme

Circulation-based Mutual Influence between Global Summit and International Civic Activities:‎ with Examples of WTO Cabinet Meeting and G8, the Post-war History of Cynicism and Indifference towards Politics based on the Perspective of Media Communication in Youth Culture; The Exit of Activists from Social Movement Activities: Retirement, Burnout, and Suspension – Summit Protest as Inter-organizational Network Building Opportunity Focusing on Conflicts in the Political and Non-political Spheres of Private Life – Industrial Structure Analysis of NGO